“I SING the body electric,” Walt Whitman wrote in 1855, inspired by the novelty of useful electricity, which he would live to see power streetlights and telephones, locomotives and dynamos. In “Leaves of Grass,” his ecstatic epic poem of American life, he depicted himself as a live wire, a relay station for all the voices of the earth, natural or invented, human or mineral. “I have instant conductors all over me,” he wrote. “They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me… My flesh and blood playing out lightning to strike what is hardly different from myself.”
Electricity equipped Whitman and other poets with a scintillation of metaphors. Like inspiration, it was a lightning flash. Like prophetic insight, it illuminated the darkness. Like sex, it tingled the flesh. Like life, it energized raw matter. Whitman didn’t know that our cells really do generate electricity, that the heart’s pacemaker relies on such signals and that billions of axons in the brain create their own electrical charge (equivalent to about a 60-watt bulb). A force of nature himself, he admired the range and raw power of electricity.